Students in intro computer-science class at Harvard face cheating charges

The Crimson reports that more than 60 students who took "Harvard’s flagship introductory computer science course" last fall have had to face hearings to answer charges of "academic dishonesty" - which the Crimson adds may have been unintentional and due to stupidly vague rules on student collaboration.



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    Harvard, cheating, computers,

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    Harvard, cheating, computers, intro? Do they teach it in Latin? What do they do about the difficult courses?

    I invite you

    To take the course. It's offered for free via the edX initiative.

    My professional background is in tech, I probably know more HTML, CSS, and JS going in than the average person the course is designed for, and I still haven't been able to actually finish the course.

    I also have to wonder if the edX component had any impact here–as far as I can tell, you're in the same "class," just with some different requirements. But a LOT of crowdsourcing in play.

    Computer science isn't the same as writing code

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    As Chris knows, computer science isn't the same as writing code. Computer science involves understanding data structures, discrete math, analytic number theory (Bachmann–Landau notation), logic, linear algebra, and so on and so forth.

    Loads of people write great code, but lack the mathematical foundation to do computer science. Without really good math, comp sci ain't in your future.

    Then there's the whole informatics thing ...

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    Which has been brought to my attention of late because kidlet is thinking of double majoring in it, which means she takes Java next semester (which hopefully she'll do fine at because she's good at languages in general and seems to have figured out math).

    Based on Chris's description of the EdX version of the course, it sounds like this was the comp-sci intro course for prospective comp-sci majors, rather than the comp-sci intro course for humanities majors, in which case, I dunno, it seems pretty impressive that 636 people would be taking it. But maybe that's just Harvard, or as one commenter on the first Crimson article (a trolling MIT student?) put it:

    This happened in Stanford as well with their intro cs class. Look, non-cs types need to stop taking CS classes. We get it, you want to blow up at an IPO like Mark but stay in your lane and keep to your strengths. Don't fish in ponds that you aren't supposed to.

    For both

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    The course description states that the course is for concentrators and non-concentrators. I take non-concentrators to mean everyone else outside people concentrating (majoring I assume) in computer science.

    CS50: the toughest class you'll ever love*

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    * (to paraphrase the Peace Corp slogan)

    The article is accurate, the course is marketed as very welcoming students with no prior experience but attracts students with varying levels of experience who do intend on choosing CS as their concentration (what Harvard calls a major). The class does a survey of students' prior experience and there are many at many different levels.

    I took CS50 through the Harvard Extension School a number of years ago. Each assignment, or problem set, had a standard version plus additional optional challenges more experienced students could choose to add. I had a lot of professional IT experience but less formal experience CS experience. It is a challenging class (not as challenging as this site's captchas, tho'), it can require a lot of hours but also inspires people to put in a lot of hours. I am basically a CS50 fanboy, it's a great class and I think Malan is a great instructor.

    I think most cheating is not compensating for an inability to grasp a subject but for mistakes in time management. It's interesting that this has occurred in a semester where it sounds like they made the assignments a little easier. Maybe some students, when they heard that, thought they could plan on only putting the same amount of time in they do in their other classes and were caught out. With such a large quantity, there could well be an "infection" aspect to this where a couple of people do something that crosses the line for acceptable collaboration or use or code they didn't author and others hear that and think "oh, I guess that's okay."

    It could also be that there wasn't a change in incidents this year but a change in detection. I know for at least some problems sets they use automated tools both to evaluate the correctness of the work but also to identify plagiarism. Maybe a change in how assignments are evaluated turned up more problems.

    If you have that many

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    If you have that many students in trouble, then it's probably the professor's fault. If a few people are doing it wrong, then the blame falls on the individual students, but when you have a large number failing, then the blame shifts to one the thing they have in common, which is the professor.

    25 years ago the same thing happened with subject 1.00 at MIT. A third of the enrolled students were involved. The root of the problem was bad lecturing and confusing problem sets where it's possible to get stuck on one piece making it impossible to complete subsequent pieces.

    Given the prolific nature of cheating in higher ed stem courses

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    This isn't too surprising how higher ed doesn't seem to punish cheating or academic dishonesty at all. I'm not saying they want to pump out bad students, I wonder if it's a mix of "why bother, I won't be backed by the administration" or turning a blind eye because they don't want to deal with it for other reasons . The ones that do care about the cheating, tend to look at it in a vengeful way where they know cheating is going on but instead of addressing the cheating properly, use it as a reason to be spiteful to the students they don't like.

    It's only news because it's Harvard.

    Agree with "why bother, admin

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    Agree with "why bother, admin won't back me up" being at play.

    I wonder of another reason is that the cheating is so rampant that the problem is too big to deal with. How to do you punish 1/3rd of a class or something (if that's the size of the problem)? You don't. Slap on the wrist or ignore it and move on.

    This isn't the first time there's been a large cheating scandal at Harvard.

    A bit of math would be useful here

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    The idea that such a large number of cases indicates a possible problem with the way the class was taught, rather than students writing answers on their forearms or something, is interesting, and is noted in the second Crimson article. But 60 or so students out of 636 is not exactly a third of the class.


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    I teach a similar course at BU, CS101 Intro to Computer Science for Non-Majors. Typical enrollment is about 200 students. The target audience is roughly the same as that for Harvard's CS50, and it's rare that a student has written a line of code in their life before hitting my course.

    I haven't taken CS50 or looked through the lectures, but the syllabus and descriptions of the problem sets are such that I'm not surprised that students are borrowing work from each other and the internet given what appears to be a complex curriculum. It looks as though the bulk of the course is taught in the C programming language, one of the most complicated to learn and use, and the problems are quite aggressive. Attendance isn't mandatory and the course page encourages students to enroll for another course that meets at the same time, stating that they can catch up via video lectures.

    Programming is a collaborative endeavor and I think students benefit from working together. Many simpler problems have an obvious, optimum solution and it's likely that several students would come up with the identical approach in a class that large. I can see how students would get desperate as the course progressed and they fell further and further behind. In the real world we borrow code all the time...I often joke that programmers write just one program of their own in their career, usually their first one.

    My own course does cover programming topics, but I'm more interested in helping my class understand big-picture topics such as the difference between MacOS and Windows, how messages get routed around the internet, and ways to protect their privacy online. I don't quite get throwing non-majors in over their head into what look like some pretty deep topics in CS50.

    I can appreciate the classics

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    And it was only 20 years ago that people were still handcrafting their html...but come on.

    You need to understand the root of what you're doing, but all things are dynamic now. HTML is generated on the fly, manipulated in real time, and destroyed as soon as you navigate from the page. HTML fundamentals should be the first week primer and then you get into the real web coding of today.